Culture

New critique of orientalism muddies waters

Review

BEIRUT: Never judge a book by its cover and never assume a sexy title slips any scintillating content between the front and back flaps. Ian Almond's "The New Orientalists: Postmodern Representations of Islam from Foucault to Baudrillard," published last month by I.B. Tauris in London, sounds like hot stuff indeed. The pairing of a possible sequel to Edward Said's monumental "Orientalism," first published in 1978 and influential ever since, with the renegades and rebels of French theory seems like a winning combination and suggests a riveting read. But while Almond's tome is an admirable contribution to an ongoing academic discourse, it is, at times, a tough slog through jargon and purple prose.

Almond has taught English literature at universities in Istanbul and Berlin and published his last book, "Sufism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Study of Derrida and Ibn Arabi," with Routledge in 2004.

In "The New Orientalists," he examines the role of Islam in the work of nine writers - Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek, all of whom, like consumable bits of brand-name academese, are identified by last name alone. This isn't to slam the author but it does suggest that the intended audience is readers already well versed in the oeuvre under scrutiny.

Almond's argument is that orientalism - the damaging ways which writers in the West have created an imaginary construct of subjects in the East as exotic, mysterious, unchanging and irreversibly other - was never really exposed and then banished from academic thought. Rather it rerouted itself into the postmodern project, and once there has become a more insidious strain of the scholarship that came before.

Western writers, argues Almond, are still setting up a false opposition between the Orient and the Occident to serve their own purposes. Those purposes may feign sympathy with Islam but ultimately serve no other objective than to sustain a critique of Western modernity while maintaining Europe as central and superior. The result is that Islam remains unknown and other in the West, and postmodernism remains suspect for Muslim thinkers in the East.

Almond's conclusion, then, is that despite its best efforts to the contrary, postmodernism has failed to deconstruct the centers, the grand narratives and the universal truths. It has failed to dismantle the positions of European privilege and some of its most brilliant proponents are actually positioning themselves on ethically dubious ground by appropriating elements of an unfamiliar culture without allowing full-blown lived experience of and within that culture to emerge in their work. Postmodern thinkers, in other words, still cast Islam in backward, medieval dress.

Almond's critique hangs principally on the argument that writers such as Nietzsche and Borges have little knowledge of the culture about which they write and are thus dependent of the work of Western orientalists. Fine, fair enough. Julia Kristeva's treatment of feminism and Islam seems particularly egregious.

But within the lineup of writers presented here, perhaps the more interesting chapters are those dedicated to Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk, two writers who have, writes Almond, a "problematic 'insider' status" in that they are both "nominally" Muslim and the impression of Islam in their work "will not always be that of an alien, incomprehensible faith, but often that of a familiar background, a collection of metaphors and rituals presented as an actual set of lived conditions, rather than an exotic palette of colors."

On Pamuk, Almond offers an insightful account of the Nobel Prize-winner's critical reception in Turkey and sets his books, particularly the novel "The Black Book," in the wider context of Turkish literature at large. Almond examines the strains of sadness and melancholy in Pamuk's work, and engages with the Islamic and specifically Sufi references that permeate Pamuk's prose.

His conclusion is that Pamuk is writing not only of the loneliness and emptiness humanity suffers when religion becomes obsolete (when the delusions required by religion expire), but also of the loneliness and emptiness of God. It's a stretch, but it's an creative argument and an interesting read.

Almond clearly admires Pamuk's work but he is more wishy-washy on Rushdie, finding fault with the multiple versions and interpretations of Islam that pepper novels such as "Midnight's Children" and "The Moor's Last Sigh" and such nonfiction collections as "Imaginary Homelands."

Given the subject matter at hand, the scant attention Almond pays to "The Satanic Verses" comes as something of a shock, and a huge opportunity lost. In the end, Almond gives Rushdie a critical nod for allowing multiple vocabularies of Islam to exist in his novels and for inverting the priorities of Western texts, "using postmodernity to clarify Islam, instead of Islam to illustrate postmodernity."

What seems to bug Almond most is that both Pamuk and Rushdie are decidedly secular, and to be secular is a problematic proposition here. Almond mentions but doesn't indulge the fact that both Pamuk and Rushdie use religious texts as such, as literary sources they take pleasure in reading and interpreting and using not as codes of behavior but rather as malleable points of references.

Also, to extract Rushdie's treatment of Islam from the kaleidoscopic worlds he creates in his fictions seems off point. Yes, Islam is inconstant in Rushdie's novels, and so too, to an often devastating degree, is everything else - love, loyalty, friendship, nation, state, homeland, your wife, your lover, your children, the ground beneath your feet and time (particularly for the Moor, who ages in double-time).

What, then, is Almond looking for? Genuine faith? Spirituality? Immovable belief? It would be perhaps more illuminating to read the flipside of Almond's argument - a chronicle of writers who confound rather than conform to his critic of the new orientalists.

Ian Almond's "The New Orientalists: Postmodern Representations of Islam from Foucault to Baudrillard" is published by I.B. Tauris

 

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